News from Penn State Musical Theatre
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Greetings from Penn State musical theatre, where we are in the middle of a very busy year! 

A look back at the fall…
Our production of Be More Chill led the way in our commitment to connect our students more specifically to NYC artists and professionals. It was surrounded by a talkback with Broadway historian Jennifer Ashley Tepper and a post-show concert by writer Joe Iconis and his troupe of NYC artists. The second-year M.F.A. directors helmed two terrific one-act productions of S’Wonderful and Falsettoland. Our curricular journey included a revamped class intended to provide business skills to our musical theatre seniors and a reimagined “Junior Studio” whose goal is to provide students an opportunity to prepare a show without production elements.  This continues the work from Sophomore Studio solo acting/singing and duet scenes, and expands it to teaching techniques that include ensemble work. In this inaugural semester, Susan Schulman directed the class in Little Women—a thrill and huge educational opportunity for our juniors.

Looking ahead…
The winter and spring will see productions of American Idiot and The Light in the Piazza. The first commissioned musical (written by Joe Iconis and still untitled) will have a concert at 54 Below in January and a late spring reading/concert in State College. The annual showcase will take place in early May, and the revamped Spotlight event is in the planning stages for April. Also this spring, we will announce our writing team for the second commissioning project, and they will visit campus to meet our juniors in preparation for next year’s fall semester class.
As I continue to settle into my role at Penn State, I want to thank you for your continued support. We are grateful for the many ways in which alumni support the program. The help that you provide our graduates as they hit NYC and the business is invaluable. Many of you provide couches to sleep on, audition advice, help navigating NYC, valuable introductions to your contacts, and countless other things. It is this support that makes musical theatre alumni very special—and I know I speak for all students, current and future, when I say a heartfelt thank you for all you do. Like many high-level musical theatre programs, our current aspirations continue to exceed our possibilities. If you are interested in learning about how you can further support us, please let me know. Teaching a master class, assisting with a scholarship, supporting a program or production…there are many possibilities we could dream up together.
As always, if you find yourself in the area—or wanting to make a trip to campus to visit—please let me know. We would love a chance to welcome you back, introduce you to our current students, and show you some of the exciting things going on in musical theatre! It’s an exciting time to be at Penn State! WE ARE! 
John Simpkins
Head of Musical Theatre

First Commissioned Musical Sets NYC Concert Date!

Penn State Sings Joe Iconis at 54 Below

Saturday, January 28, 2017 | 9:30 and 11:30 PM

One of our new initiatives in Penn State Musical Theatre is to commission writers to write musicals for our students. Joe Iconis—our first writer—visited last year and met the junior class. We had picnics, discussions, master classes, mock auditions, and a concert—and then he started writing! This semester—in a class called “Senior Studio”—we have been learning and developing the show with him. He has visited us in person and on Skype, and, so far, the project has been a huge success. The students are learning the ins and outs of developing a brand-new character in a completely new musical!
A romance set in a 1960s “juvie hall” for girls, the yet-untitled musical uses classic “bad girl” movies as the inspiration for a story of young people caught between eras of a changing America and their attempt to break out of the boxes society has created around them. The music uses rock and roll structure and excitement, mixed with some of the “girl groups” of the early ‘60s. The inspiration for the musical and the evolving characters originated with Joe’s visit with the students as part of last spring’s meetings and discussions.
The 54 Below concert will feature some of the material from the show, as well as classic incendiary Iconis tunes. In spring 2017, we will present a concert and reading of the full show in State College! Keep an eye out for that date and time—we would love to have you attend.
Joe Iconis has penned the musicals Be More Chill, Drama Desk Award-nominated Bloodsong of Love, The Black Suits, ReWrite, Broadway Bounty Hunter, and The Plant That Ate Dirty Socks, as well as the theatrical concert Things to Ruin. His songs were featured on season 2 of NBC’s Smash, and he is currently working on several new musicals.
Please consider joining us for this very exciting evening at 54 BELOW! There are shows at 9:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m.

Click here to reserve tickets!


A special feature on alumni who are reaching new heights using their passion for the arts to cultivate new skillsets and opportunity.

For this Alumni Spotlight, I’ve done something different, namely highlighting musical theatre alums who have not followed the traditional post-graduation cycle of agents, auditions, national tours, regional theatre, cruise ships, Broadway, and the like. We feature answers to a few questions I posed to each of four alums. 

Ross Harris graduated from the program in 2008 and currently lives in New York, where for the last five years he has been an agent at the Stuart Krichevsky Literary Agency. He represents writers of fiction and nonfiction and sells their work to publishers. He helps writers build ideas and assemble book projects, negotiates contracts on their behalf, and sells the film rights to their books and articles.
Alyssa Gagarin, a 2012 graduate, while still actively auditioning in theatre, television, and film, is a private chef, personal trainer, and group fitness instructor, and teaches kids’ cooking classes. All of these many jobs have led to her most recent endeavor: producing her own cooking show.
Rebecca Miller graduated in 2006 and now instructs classes at a boutique fitness studio called ((305)) Fitness. The classes are set up to emulate a Miami nightclub, with a live DJ and light show, plus rotating art installations around the studio. She leads clients through an intense dance cardio workout with sports drills, sprints, and toning.
Jeremy Seiner, from the class of 2015, in addition to being an actor, is an app developer for the iPhone and iPad. Connecting his two passions of theatre and technology, he is working on an app that organizes and prints resumes for actors.  He also works on video projects such as vlogging and a future YouTube series that combines his love for music and filmmaking.

At what point did you make the transition, and was there a particular motivation?
Ross: Before I moved to New York, I had already made the decision that I wouldn’t be pursuing a career as a performer. I allowed myself to explore and learn about theatre as a business, and it was more or less a natural transition into agenting. I am still able to work with creative people everyday, though I can now close the deals that make the art happen. It’s a different kind of excitement, but a rewarding and creative endeavor all the same. 
Alyssa: I am a big foodie and started teaching myself how to cook while at Penn State. My roommates, classmates, and other Musical Theatre majors were taste testers of my many food experiments. Food Network was always on in my room. After graduation, this led me to pursue food-related side jobs while auditioning in NYC. As summer approached and I did not have a theatre job lined up, it was the perfect time for me to focus on this. I do not like to wait around for auditions or for opportunities to find me, so I decided to create my own opportunity. This cooking show is the perfect blend of who I am as a person: a performer, a health nut, a trainer, and a foodie. 
Rebecca: I had given a tremendous amount of time and energy to my performing career, and it wasn't making me happy in all the same ways it used to. I wanted to feel a bit more grounded. I felt confident and proud of my achievements, but I couldn't see myself performing as a pop artist through my 30s, 40s, and on...when I started instructing these fitness classes, that fulfilled that creative itch I will always have. It keeps me engaged with music, dance, and that young, wild energy!
Jeremy: Theatre is still my main career and passion. I like attaching skills and knowledge gained from pursuing this art form to different creative mediums like film and app development. I’ve spent a lot of time during my childhood and education accruing different skillsets and now is the time to apply them to something I can make a living off of.
Do you have any advice for musical theatre graduates who want to transition to something different from the usual theatre career?
Ross: Don’t be shy. New York City is for the brave, and fortune favors the bold. Ask for advice from those you wish to emulate, attend readings, take meetings, forge your own path. There’s no right way to do it. Fake it ’til you make it. 
Alyssa: The skills that we have as actors can serve us in so many different ways. Just because you love theatre, studied theatre, and moved to NYC to do theatre doesn't mean that it has to be the only thing you do for the rest of your life! Don't let that limit you. You can still work in theatre and explore other passions at the same time, as I am doing. Or transition to something else entirely! Be true to who you are and GO FOR IT. Seriously, go for it. 
Rebecca: Go with your gut! It is the strongest indicator. When you stop yourself from trying something you may not have envisioned yourself doing years back, you end up shutting out opportunity. You may surprise yourself with how fulfilling other ventures can be!
Jeremy: Keep developing other skills you can apply towards creative outlets. Use what you’ve learned from school to become resourceful when you aren’t currently in a show so that you don’t need to worry about that next job. A skill like transposing audition cuts or taking headshots can be both creatively and financially fulfilling. Who knows? It could be something you’d like to pursue further.

Read the full interview here!

Thoughts from 2012 Alum LUKE VIRSTIS

on working as an agent at William Morris Endeavor

What led you to start working at an agency? 
I knew I didn’t want to work in box office and customer service forever, but wasn’t sure where to go next. One of my mentors at Second Stage suggested I look into working for an agency because the work exposes you to all areas of the entertainment industry. That’s especially true at WME, who not only represents all types of different artists, but has recently formed its own production branch and continues to grow in new ways every day. 
What do you think is the biggest misconception about agents/agencies? 
I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that all agencies are the same. They’re not. Agencies come in many different shapes and sizes. For example, WME has over 6,000 employees and our reach is global, but it’s not right for everyone. A growing artist is often going to get more out of a smaller agency, but everyone’s journey is different. 
How has your time at Penn State influenced the person you are today? 
I still firmly believe that my time at Penn State was spent with some of the kindest, most dedicated, and genuine people I’ve ever met. Not only did I get amazing training at an outstanding university, but Penn State taught me what it means to be a good person in this business. I’ve strived to create a community in NYC based on those qualities because now, more than ever, it’s not just about getting ahead, but building meaningful relationships

Read the full interview here!
Follow Luke: @lukeluke28

World-renowned voice instructor
reflects on her time at Penn State

You joined the Musical Theatre faculty just a few years after the creation of the program. How did that opportunity come about and what led you to make that decision?
It more or less came out of the blue. I was living with my husband and two sons just north of New York City, commuting daily to my Manhattan studio, when I got a call from Bev Patton at Penn State asking if “I or anyone I knew” might be interested in applying for a job teaching singing for their newly formed musical theatre program. Bob and I sat down and made up a list of pros and cons such a life change would present. The pros won, I applied for the job, and we traveled to State College for an interview in February of 1999 with our youngest son Eddie in tow. In a blizzard, of course. It so happened my eldest son Jonathan was a high school senior and had been accepted as a theatre major by an upstate New York university. When Penn State offered me the position we told him, "The good news is you're going to Penn State. The bad news is we’re coming along!"
What has it been like to watch the program grow and create a lasting presence in the industry?
The growth of Penn State’s Musical Theatre program has been a source of great personal and professional satisfaction to me. I had the immense good fortune to collaborate with a group of superb colleagues in building the program. We had strong visionary leadership in Cary Libkin and enthusiastic unwavering support from the administration. We were all in the trenches digging away together. When we did look up and actually see how the students were flourishing, we realized we were making something special happen.
If you had to distill your philosophy about vocal training in one (or two) sentence(s), what would it be?
We are training actors to sing. Dramatic context is the reference point. The singing voice needs to “speak” from the lowest to the highest note in a finely tuned balance between treble and bass qualities. This gives performers the ability to choose the voice for any story they are telling.
What makes you most proud of your graduates?
To know that every good thing that happens to them they will pay forward.
What advice would you share with any young performing artist who wants create a meaningful life of singing?
You are your instrument. You would treat a Stradivarius with care and respect. There is no Stradivarius as precious as you are. Train carefully, seek out trusted professionals to help and guide you, and, of course, “do it for love.”

Read the full story here!

Click here to learn more about Mary Saunders and her work. 


Catching up with recent graduate Ixchel Cuellar, who got the call to make her Broadway debut while sitting in her college apartment. 
How did you end up at Penn State?
Penn State has always had a significance in my life. My uncle played lacrosse at Penn State back in the day and he is a die-hard alum. Whenever I was at their house, I was surrounded by Penn State cups, blankets, tents, and pretty much anything you could think of with a Nittany Lion on it. So when Penn State was at LA unifieds, I decided to do a walk-in audition. I was originally put on the waitlist and was deciding between a couple of other schools. Then I got a call from Cary Libkin asking how I would feel about going to Penn State! At that moment it felt like my stomach fell out of my butt, I said yes, and the rest is history.

What was your audition process for Finding Neverland like? 
It began in the beginning of March of my senior year. I had just closed 110 in the Shade and miraculously didn't have any classes on the Tuesday after we closed, so I decided to go into the city to audition for the West Side Story International Tour. My best friend/college roommate Kate Johnson decided to come with me to go to the Finding Neverland Equity Chorus Call. The WSS audition was at 2 p.m. and Finding Neverland was at 10 a.m. Kate convinced me to audition with her for Finding Neverland. I was super-reluctant at first because I didn't think that I was "right for it.” Kate was insistent that I go with her. So I auditioned in the morning and didn't think anything of it. Then about a month later I got a call from someone at Telsey and Co. asking if I would be willing to come back and dance for the team again. So I hopped on a bus to NYC, danced, then got an email that afternoon asking me to come back to sing and do sides. After I finished up, I felt good about what I did in the room but never expected to actually book it. Then at around 6:30 p.m. the next day, I was sitting in my room at 708 (my college apartment) and got a phone call from an unknown New York number. On the line was Patrick Goodwin from Telsey, offering me the vacation swing position in Finding Neverland! It was one of the most incredible moments of my life. 

Read the full story here! 


As you plan your calendar for the winter/spring, perhaps you'll consider a trip to State College to see a show? The two mainstage musicals this year are:
Book by Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer
Lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong
Music by Green Day

February 14-25, 2017
Playhouse Theatre

Buy Tickets
Book by Craig Lucas
Music and Lyrics by Allan Guettel

April 4-15, 2017
Penn State Downtown Theatre Center

Buy Tickets
 We Are...On Broadway! Concert | January 16, 2017 

Alumni of the Penn State School of Theatre will reunite for “We Are...On Broadway!" – a one-night-only concert presented by School of Theatre alumni Mike Karns, Robert Schneider, and Carolyn Quinn, in association with current sophomore Alexander Baron on Monday, January 16, at 7:00 p.m. at Schwab Auditorium. The evening will showcase the talents of four Penn State alumni who are now performing on Broadway and around the country alongside current Musical Theatre majors, as well as local middle and high school students. The evening is directed by Penn State’s Head of Musical Theatre John Simpkins, with music direction by School of Theatre Music Director Dan Riddle. Tickets start at $15 and are available via

Featured performers will include Gilbert Bailey (currently featured in A Bronx Tale, also Book of Mormon on Broadway), Audrey Cardwell (Cinderella in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella First National Tour), Jeremy Greenbaum (Newsies on Broadway), and Jodi Stevens (Jekyll & Hyde and Urban Cowboy on Broadway).

 Third Annual STAGES Festival | January 17, 2017 

After two extremely successful iterations, the STAGES Festival returns for its third consecutive year on January 17, 2017. STAGES, which stands for School of Theatre Alumni Giving Experience to Students, is a day-long festival where more than 20 Penn State alumni and friends return to State College for a day of master classes and one-on-one sessions with students to help them prepare for the real world. The festival has led to new experiences, summer internships, and even jobs for Penn State students, and helps to fortify the student/alumni relationship within the School of Theatre.
Please take 30 seconds and update your most current contact info and latest endeavors! By making a commitment to stay connected, we can continue to develop new relationships, inspire others, invite collaboration, and so much more!
Please send any inquires, comments, or suggestions regarding the newsletter to Addi McDaniel and/or John Simpkins. 
Copyright © 2016 Penn State/College of Arts and Architecture, All rights reserved.

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